Tue 5 March 2024
Studying Writing
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Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
Digging Deeper
Banwell, Lucy
Lucy Banwell writes about studying on the Postgraduate Diploma in Creative Writing and Personal Development at Sussex University with tutor Celia Hunt.
Since I was a child I've been resolving the issues in my life by making up stories about them. I'd act out the different parts in arguments and make the endings the way I wanted them to be. As I got older I wrote down the stories, instead of just keeping them in my head, until, quite suddenly, I discover I'm a writer. I expect that most writers have made a similar journey.

In 1999 I was working as an arts co-ordinator and from time to time I'd been asked to facilitate writing workshops. I felt that I was as qualified as anyone else to lead these sessions simply because I'd participated in so many myself. But I always had the sense that I was skimming the surface of something deeper. An inkling that there was something more to be gained than a collection of putative writers producing a collection of nascent poems.

When I saw the advert for a Post Graduate Diploma in Writing and Personal Development I was intrigued. It wasn't clear from the advert whether it was a course to learn how to facilitate others' personal development, or whether the point was to develop yourself and your writing. I sent off for the full brochure and discovered that it was a mixture of both, with some basic psychology thrown in. The diploma explores theoretical contexts of writing and personal development along with more practical applications, such as the possibilities for establishing a writing therapy.

I didn't think I had a hope of being accepted onto a Post Grad course because I'd never done any further education at all. But I sent off an application complete with some examples of my writing and got an interview. The other complication was that the course - at the time the only one of its kind - was at Sussex University, and I lived in the Midlands. It took me over 4 hours to drive to the interview and as I tried to navigate the campus I became more and more intimidated by the international bright young things milling around me. But during the interview I began to realize that the course formalized a lot of what I was doing anyway. And the idea of working with other people who were doing similar things was exciting. And so, when I was offered a place, I accepted.

The course ran for a year, with sessions every other Saturday. There was plenty of reading, writing and research in between, as well as optional lectures. It was demanding enough to fill most of the time I had available outside of my three day a week job.

The reading list was daunting. For each session there was one essential reading text, and five or six other suggested texts to browse. Freud, Winnicott and Rudnytsky nestled alongside Milner, Hesse, and Pirandello. But Virginia Woolf, Jenny Diski and Isabel Allende were there too, and I'd read all those, so that felt reassuring.

At the first session I was relieved to see that most of the other participants were also mature students. Almost everyone else had graduated, but many had a long gap since their last experience of formal education and most were juggling jobs - as counsellors, psychotherapists, writers or admin workers - too.

Throughout the first term we looked at practical approaches to writing and personal development. This included themes common to most writing courses, such as developing a narrative and finding a voice. But with all the usual workshop devices there was also an element of self-exploration, and the opportunity to look deeper within oneself for inspiration. Each session we'd bring a new piece of writing, and we'd work in groups to read and feed back on each other's work.

During this term I struggled with breaking into a new style of writing. Previously, I'd written a series of first-person articles for newspapers and magazines, and the Sunday Supplement style was what came naturally. But I was embarrassed to take this kind of writing along for the scrutiny of the other participants. The air-brushed emotions and neat, rounded corners just didn't ring true.

Gradually, I found a rhythm. When I left the house at 5am every other Saturday I could watch the sun rise - at Northampton, Bedford or London depending on the season - and I finally started to feel that I had found my direction. The long drive home was an opportunity to reflect on the sessions. The buzz from bouncing ideas off the other participants lasted until midway up the M1, when the Red Bull took over. More often than not I would wake up the following morning with the basis of my next piece.

The second term was more theoretical, and I found this quite difficult at times. Amongst other themes, we discussed theory of the self in autobiography and language. We looked at social narratives and metaphors, and their applications in counselling and psychotherapy.

I was terrified about having to produce academic essays, because I'd never done it before. But in the event I found that once I'd wrestled with a theme and title, the rest flowed. Finally I discovered that the essays were an opportunity to crystallize the jumble of information that I'd grazed on throughout the term. Looking back, each essay reads like a section of a journey of discovery.

I found the final term the most exciting, and also the most scary. We had the choice of either setting up and facilitating a practical project, or carrying out a period of research. My project was a mixture of both. I worked with someone experiencing hearing voices as part of her schizophrenia, to see if various writing and editing techniques could make a difference to the frequency and volume of those voices. The 10,000 word dissertation based on the project enabled me to take a firm grasp on some of the theories I'd been grappling with.

The Diploma also formed one half of an MA in Writing and Education, which I completed the following year. The two courses enabled me to glimpse a destination, establish a direction and generate the confidence to convince myself, and others, that the road I'm on is made of concrete, and not fluffy orange clouds.

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